The Braden Holtby bashing has already begun, thanks to Tuesday’s loss to the Sabres where Holtby was pulled after allowing 3 goals on 18 shots.
That’s bad, but people are also blowing it out of proportion: using Holtby’s performance Tuesday as vindication that it was the wrong decision to start him, that he doesn’t belong playing at the NHL level, and that the blame for Tuesday’s loss falls squarely on his shoulders.
In light of seemingly insurmountable odds (like an .833 save percentage in Tuesday’s game), these facts might make you think differently:
1. Guess who gave up 3 goals to Buffalo back in December (when the Caps played them)and had to be pulled? Michal Neuvirth. And it only took him 11 minutes. Holtby at least made it into the second period.
2. Guess who gave up 5 goals to Buffalo in November (under Bruce Boudreau)? Tomas Vokoun. In the interest of full disclosure, Vokoun also helped the Capitals beat the Sabres 3-1 later on in the season, but since Vokoun was injured, he wasn’t an option for Tuesday’s game. And, all told, he’s still this year given up more goals to Buffalo than Holtby.
3. Holtby just came off a shutout; a shootout loss where he held the third-best team in the league in goals per game to 1–I repeat–1 goal in regulation and overtime; and a 5-3 victory in Hockeytown (ironically, Detroit averages the fourth best in goals per game) . Neuvirth, meanwhile, is coming off a blown lead to Winnipeg (though he faced a lot of shots), and a 5-2 loss to the Blackhawks.
4. Both Neuvirth and Vokoun have played poorly enough to get pulled before, so it’s not like Braden’s distinction in that category Tuesday somehow proved he doesn’t deserve to be up here playing in the NHL. In fact, the Capitals haven’t been satisfied enough over the past few seasons to keep any goalie consistently in the starting role, so in that case, Holtby fits right in.
So what happened with Holtby and Buffalo isn’t actually anything out of the ordinary for any of the Capitals’ goaltenders this season, for those who care to look. [This isn't meant to be a slight to Michal Neuvirth or to Tomas Vokoun, but I think comparison in this particular situation will help get a more accurate view.]
Obviously, Holtby’s far from faultless. For example, his rebound control Tuesday was costly.
But he also had little support from his defensive core. The Capitals gave up at least two odd-man rushes that led to goals (one on Holtby’s third goal, and one on Neuvirth’s second), and that’s not including the shorthanded goal the Sabres scored.
On Holtby’s other two goals, he stopped the initial shot but coughed up the rebound. Blame there is debatable, but Brooks Laich did have this to say after the game:
“Holts makes the first save, we’re responsible to clear the puck after that,” Laich said.
And, bottom line, while Michal Neuvirth’s entrance provided a bit of a jump, the Capitals still finished with a greater goal differential than when Holtby left the game. In fact, Brooks Laich said afterwards that he was still very confident at 3-1, and even a comeback at 4-1 would have been possible with a goal early in the third. So, in other words, the two goals Neuvirth let in actually did matter–it wasn’t like the Capitals were so deflated by Holtby’s goals that they couldn’t rebound.
People are also screaming about Holtby’s terrible pass to Schultz in the first period. If you actually went back and looked at the play, you’d get a better handle on why that pass was so awkward: you can see on the video that before Holtby’s less-than-perfect pass to Jeff Schultz, he’s actually facing the other way and looks like he wants to pass to the Capitals’ defenseman on that side, which happens to be John Carlson. But guess what? The Buffalo Sabres’ Cody McCormick hustled and caught up with Carlson, cutting off the shooting lane. You can see Holtby notices McCormick coming and has to adjust at the last moment, which means giving an awkward pass to Schultz that’s intercepted by the Sabres, gets passed to McCormick, who then shoots and beats a scrambling Holtby.
Here, playing aggressive works for McCormick and not for Holtby. McCormick’s hustle left Holtby little choice but to pass to Schultz from an awkward angle. Wrong decision to play the puck behind the net? Obviously in this case. But Caps fans have also seen Tomas Vokoun get risky enough this season to make a daredevil squint (observation #1: that’s not the Caps’ crease! but that is a defender in the picture).
Bottom line: this was a team loss, to which Holtby contributed. Neuvirth may have inherited it, but an .846 save percentage isn’t going to do much to make the case that he was the solution. The Capitals have three talented, NHL-caliber goalies. At one point or another in the season, Buffalo’s made all three–and the team playing in front of them–look like they belong in the AHL. It was not like the Caps played stellar and were undermined by Holtby letting in soft goals.
To end on a happy note, at least one person was encouraging of Holtby Tuesday night: Alexander Semin.
One observant viewer (@ryancroller) noted on Twitter to Capitals.com beat writer Mike Vogel that, after scoring the Capitals’ only goal of the night, Alex Semin eventually skated back to the bench, “tapped Holtby on shoulder, and went to the faceoff circle.”